The government has allocated Sh25 billion to fund a signature campaign pledge: free day secondary education starting January next year. This is perhaps the strongest demonstration by the government that a high school education must become a birthright of every Kenyan child.
Ordinarily, this would be absolutely laudable, eliciting universal praise across the land. But the wider society and education professionals have not received the announcement with celebration or praise.
Many are disappointed that the policy minders in the ministries of Education and Finance have allowed themselves to be wagged by politicians. They have failed to demonstrate professional grit buttressed by evidence.
The evidence shows that the introduction of free primary education has been associated with over-enrolment and a disastrous teacher-pupil ratio.
Some public schools are hovels, lacking walls, desks, toilets and water. Moreover, standards in numeracy and literacy in public schools have collapsed. Studies show that only three out 10 children in standard three can read and add at the level required in standard two.
While enrolment rates in standard one have shot up in some counties, both retention and completion have been atrocious. Only about 70 per cent of every standard one cohort completes standard eight. This is disconcerting and complicates the path to 100 per cent transition to secondary school for every standard one cohort.
What have we learned in the course of implementing free primary education? Can we make free day secondary education work? Keep in mind that day secondary schools are where the children who barely made it in KCPE go. Also keep in mind that these children come from poor families who mostly are rural farmers/pastoralists or are employed in the informal sector in small towns and cities across the country.
We also must not forget that the majority of these students barely made it in KCPE exam. Admission into public secondary schools is merit-based and most public day secondary schools are at the bottom of the barrel. Ideally, such students need great teachers, excellent facilities, and literally all the support they can get to succeed in high school.
Will the noble intentions of free day secondary education falter and fail under the weight of poor and sloppy implementation? Have we learnt any lessons from free primary education that continues to haemorrhage hard-earned precious and scarce public funds? Is this another round of Russian roulette with the future of Kenya’s less privileged children?
I suggest our experience with government-funded education has not been great. In fact, it has failed. I would suggest that we try something different this time. How about conditional grant transfers to public schools to incentivise teaching excellence, retention and completion rates?
Are we committed to preparing our children for a brutally competitive knowledge-based economy? Not any quality of education will do.
We must invest in teacher training; pay teachers well and hold them accountable. We must invest in school infrastructure and eliminate the boarding school bias and ensure that 100 per cent transition is buttressed by measureable competence at every transition grade.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University